Despite record rainfall in parts of Southern California early this year, the drought that has posed a threat to agriculture for the past five years remains ongoing there, state officials said, even though much of the northern part of the state no longer is under drought conditions.

Growers said the rain boosted water levels in many of their wells and helped replenish groundwater and build up reservoirs, but the state has a ways to go before the drought is declared over in the south.

Though most strawberry growers managed to get through the past several seasons in relatively good shape, the drought was not without its challenges.

One of its biggest repercussions has been increased water costs, said Charlie Staka, operations manager for CBS Farms, Watsonville, Calif., which has growing operations in the southern part of the state.

The company had enough water to grow its strawberries in the Oxnard district, he said, but mandatory conservation was imposed, and companies that didn't limit water use were hit with significant overage fines.

Staka said he was not aware of any pest or disease outbreaks as a result of the drought, and berry quality was not affected.

The drought did affect the amount of usable ground available to strawberry growers, said Craig Moriyama, director of berry operations for Salinas, Calif.-based Naturipe Berry Growers.

The salt content reached such high levels that growers had to bypass some traditional berry ground and convert it to vegetables.

The loss should not be permanent, though.

"A couple of years of rain will bring it back," he said.

There also was a switch to low-flow sprinklers and away from the high-volume metal pipes used to establish the plants, he said.

"They are kind of rationing water," he said, and the low-flow sprinklers can make up the difference.

At Orange County Produce LLC, Irvine, Calif., partner Matt Kawamura said the lack of water has left its mark.

"The drought has had a major impact," he said.

For one thing, the drought has pushed back volume to later in the season.

It also has affected the strawberry plants.

"The plants didn't have a lot of life," he said.

He said he's not sure if volume will ever completely recover.

The high cost of water is another issue, he said, since the added expense makes it difficult to compete with other growing areas.

Then there was saltwater intrusion.

"We had to spend a lot of money drilling the wells deeper to get cleaner water," he said.

It will take a while to replenish the wells, he said.

Southern California and Ventura County in particular were not out of the woods, he said, but wet weather in the northern part of the state was cause for some optimism.

"With the snowpack they have, I know we are a lot closer to being OK," he said, because that snowpack provides water for Southern California.

The drought's effect on Watsonville-based Well-Pict Inc. was minimal, said Jim Grabowski, merchandising manager.

"We managed to get through the drought on a fairly decent level," he said.

Well-Pict growers pulled water from wells, "but we were limited," he said.

Strawberries have a distinct advantage over some other commodities, Grabowski said.

"We use less water than some other crops," he said. "We were able to make do with what we had."

Drip irrigation helped limit water use, he said, and he added that the area was not completely dry.

"Even though we were in a drought situation, we were still getting some water," he said.

"It wasn't to the point where we were in a real dire situation," he said.

 
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